Involve kids in free software development through play

Giving up on a position within a free software project when you know you’re no longer managing to do an effective job is a wonderfully liberating experience. Now that I have started to talk with Miriam Ruiz about handing over the Debian Jr. project, I can stop worrying about the leadership task and just have fun with it.

I can always count on Miriam for recommendations for games in Debian my kids may enjoy, as she has a passion for finding good games to package for Debian, and in particular, games for children. Over the past few weeks we’ve had some fun with her picks. At the same time, I always have Debian Jr. in mind. How can we ensure kids can have the most fun with this? How do we equip their guides to help them?

What we’ve done with each new piece of software is to find a quiet time when one or more of the children can start playing with it on their own while we watch, offering such guidance as they need, but for the most part just letting them loose with it. Each wrinkle of the brow, each impetuous thump of the mouse, every illuminated grin and exclamation of delight is noted. We try to see what frustrates or pleases our kids and discuss it both with them and the Debian maintainers and upstream developers. This is an excercise we’ve managed to pull off without being overly intrusive and the results have been well worth the effort.

Using a few of Miriam’s picks we tried this week, we were able to draw their play into the free software development process. Here’s a brief summary of those sessions:

Platinum Arts Sandbox puts into children’s hands the ability to role play in a 3D world and edit that world using simplified controls. The expressions on the faces of our kids as they played were priceless: both the ups and the downs. I wanted to capture this on video and share it. After having established a rapport with upstream, we took a 20 minute clip of one of our play sessions and gave a copy to them to use to help further their work. Here is the edited result. They were very pleased to have that kind of feedback and found the video valuable for determining where the software still needed improvement and to notice which aspects particularly pleased the children.

I happen to know that Hex-a-hop is one of Miriam’s personal favourites. We have a household full of puzzle-lovers so this puzzle game was an instant hit. While on irc on #debian-jr with Miriam we relayed in real-time some of the reactions as they played this and a handful of her other picks. This gave her some confirmation of areas she knew needed work as well as inspiration for upcoming releases of these packages.

During this play session, which also included StegaVorto, kartofel, Anagramarama, Funny Boat and Vodovod, my youngest girl, age 7, plunked down on the couch next to me as her 10-year-old sister played. Then she started to notice I was typing what people in the livingroom were saying and doing on irc. She took a mild affront to me copying her own words and actions, so I decided it would be better to let her participate so she would feel included. At this point, I started playing secretary for her, typing what she dictated to me while she read the responses from the display. Later, I just handed her the keyboard so she could type and read the responses on her own. She was still at it long past bedtime and it was with some reluctance that she finally gave up the keyboard. We all had a lot of fun and look forward to doing this again.

We are particularly careful with privacy, taking care to share pictures, videos, and other personal details only so far as we believe it does not put our children at risk. Also, we need to ensure we observe in a way that is welcome and doesn’t interfere with their enjoyment. But with a little bit of prudence and a practiced eye and ear for what increases or diminishes enjoyment of the software, we can involve our children directly in the free software development process. I commend to anyone who has the privilege to share free software with children to use this method to communicate with maintainers and developers, increasing your own enjoyment of the software in the process and that of children and their guides everywhere.

Update: A quote from this article has made it to Slashdot. Although many of the comments seem to miss my point entirely, it’s nice to get a wider audience.

2 thoughts on “Involve kids in free software development through play”

  1. Yes it will be :) We are finishing it up currently. I just need to write the man pages and make sure debian is happy with the license and it should hopefully be in debian, edubuntu, ubuntu, slackware and hopefully more :) take care.
    -mike
    http://kids.platinumarts.net

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